Is Sen. Kyrsten Sinema on her way to becoming politically irrelevant?
Opinion: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema is not a maverick like John McCain, who was still a stout Republican. She will pay for that with Democrats.
Democrats have seen this movie before, and it will not end well for Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, who has left the Party.
In her hubris, Sinema has seriously miscalculated with votes that increasingly frustrate the voters who elected her in 2018. True, Arizona party loyalists occasionally forgive politicians like John McCain who buck their party on an issue of great personal importance. But bucking it repeatedly like Sinema on core issues is folly, a lesson taught by former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.
Sinema is not a maverick in the mold of Sen. John McCain. McCain was a stout Republican – its presidential nominee in 2008 – who rarely bucked his party. Sure, he famously derailed Republican intention to strip health care from 31 million Americans in July 2017.
But McCain’s vote was principled: he traditionally favored government health programs, including sponsoring the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, and spent years as a patient in the federal health system.
She's more like Lieberman than McCain
In contrast, Sinema has morphed from a 2001 Phoenix City Council candidate rejecting campaign donations as “bribery” to becoming by 2021 a corporate donor darling. Her opposition to Democrats lowering drug prices, taxing hedge funds or raising minimum wages perplex old allies.
She even embraced the filibuster despised by the Founding Fathers, while supporting the Chamber of Commerce in suppressing wages and Republican senators in torpedoing voting rights and abortion rights protections.
True, those shifts have provided big paydays. Corporate and billionaire conservative donations to her have soared, with 90% of her individual donations now from out-of-state.
How big a payday? Rather amazingly, Sinema was the third-largest recipient of pharmaceutical and banking industry contributions in 2021, even outraising nearly all Republican senators.
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Her rejection of core Democratic Party values resembles Lieberman. He was their vice presidential nominee in 2000. But thereafter, he chose like Sinema to buck the Democrats on key issues, supporting capital gains tax cuts and the Iraq war. His popularity among Democrats plunged – also like Sinema – and he was forced to seek reelection in 2006 as an independent.
Leiberman won reelection – but, importantly, only thanks to crossover Republicans who lacked a credible candidate of their own. He went full monty Republican thereafter in his last Senate term (2006-2012), killing the Obamacare public option (Medicare expansion) in 2009, for instance, on behalf of his insurance company donors.
He’s credited with aiding the Republican midterm election sweep in 2010. But unpopular and controversial, he resigned rather than seek reelection in 2012.
Sinema's reelection prospects are grim
Like Lieberman in Connecticut, Sinema has miscalculated in taking Arizona Democrats for granted, and her Senate career (to paraphrase the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes) promises to be “nasty, brutish and short.”
Sinema’s only path to reelection had been to blackmail Arizona Democrats into not nominating their own candidate in 2024. But that option is foreclosed by Democratic U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego’s decision to enter the Senate race.
Sinema’s odds of reelection as an independent are grim. She is very unpopular with Democrats, some 81% of whom believe “Sinema works more for special interests” than for the party’s interests.
And her prospect is little better as an independent. Pew surveys find that only 21% of Arizona voters are genuine independents who don’t lean toward one party – too small to power a controversial candidate in the Lieberman mold against two vigorous, well-funded opponents.
In fact, Sinema will be unrelentingly criticized in the same terms she herself used in 2003 to describe Lieberman (“pathetic,” “shame”).
The prideful Sinema’s best course to avoid ballot embarrassment is to follow Lieberman in becoming a lobbyist.
George Tyler is a former deputy assistant treasury secretary, World Bank official, and is the author of "Billionaire Democracy" and "What Went Wrong." Reach him at email@example.com; on Twitter: @georgertyler.